Blue Marble

Cow Poo Powers California's Grid

| Tue Mar. 4, 2008 9:01 PM PST

542696674_1a7a164508_m.jpg Cows crap a lot. As of today, BioEnergy Solutions of California's Central Valley is using a vat of liquid cow poo the size of five football fields and 33 feet deep to produce natural gas. Planet Ark reports that David Albers, lifelong dairyman, aims to provide natural gas to power 1,200 homes a day through his Vintage Dairy Biogas Project. Albers is a partner in the 5,000-head Vintage Dairy and president of BioEnergy Solutions, which funded and built the facility at a cost of millions of dollars. The natural gas he's collecting is now plugged into California's grid via the Pacific Gas & Electric Company, part of an agreement to deliver up to three billion cubic feet of renewable natural gas a year—enough to meet the electricity needs of approximately 50,000 PG&E residential customers.

Good job. Even better: human poo power. Shiteloads of that to go around.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

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Philip Morris Stubs Out Tobacco Research

| Tue Mar. 4, 2008 8:09 PM PST

108877184_c7c6942c61_m.jpg At last, the tobacco company Philip Morris has ended its program supporting research at dozens of U.S. universities after the University of California decided to monitor such support in its 10-campus system. The Philip Morris External Research Program funded 470 research proposals at about 60 U.S. medical schools for the last 8 years, reports Science. Critics charged the program was no different from earlier, discredited Philip Morris programs, likewise designed to confuse the public about the dangers of smoking…. There might be a spark left in the ashtray though. Look for future tobacco- industry funded studies aimed at "reducing the harm of smoking." —Like quitting?

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

Why Superdelegates Are a Mob

| Mon Mar. 3, 2008 7:13 PM PST

Prison.jpg What happens to the Democratic primary when you plug it into the Prisoner's Dilemma? You know, that classic game theory tool (born from mathematics and economics and now used across many disciplines to analyze optimal behavior strategies when the outcome is uncertain and is dependent on the choices of others). Well, you might think superdelegates are good. You might think they're bad. But according to polysciblogger Jay Cost at RealClearPolitics the outcome is essentially anarchy:

The core problem is that the Democrats have empowered the super delegates to break a tie, but they have not empowered anybody to manage the super delegates. There are no rules that demand the super delegates convene and discuss with one another. There is nobody in charge of regulating the debate. There is nothing to punish the super delegates who are small-minded, nothing to reward the big-minded. There are no time restrictions that require them to make up their minds prior to the convention. They are wholly unfettered. Thus, the super delegates have a great deal in common with a mob. They're a mob of experienced, qualified politicos who care about the party. If the Democratic Party were to be put at the mercy of a mob—this is the mob you'd want. But it is a mob nonetheless. This is why large institutions—like the House and the Senate—have reams of rules governing member behavior. If the members of those institutions are to do their jobs ably, they need a framework for interaction. Otherwise, their talents may be squandered amidst the chaos.

Squandered talents. Amidst the chaos. Sounds like Normal to me… Thanks to Jake Young blogging at Pure Pedantry for pointing the way on this.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

Who Does Your Unconscious Want to Vote For?

| Mon Mar. 3, 2008 5:41 PM PST

228705707_b26afccb91_m.jpg Maybe not who your conscious mind prefers. Want to find out? Take the 10-minute online Project Implicit test designed by psycholowonks at the U of Washington, the U of Virginia and Harvard. The test is fun, made me laugh, and will crack that oh-so-dark door to your secret feelings about the main candidates. Thanks to Peter Aldhous at Short Sharp Science for the heads-up on this, and for his results revealing a secret crush on Hillary. He's not alone, the test shows that many rate Clinton higher on the implicit test than their conscious attitudes speak—for both men and women.

As for my unconscious, it's, well, so unconscious and insists on paralleling my conscious, which rates Clinton high anyway... The really fun part, the one we'll surely never know, is: Who would the candidates themselves secretly prefer?

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

China's More-Child Policy?

| Sun Mar. 2, 2008 3:48 PM PST

566394520_9e9b6d4f93_m.jpg China is considering scrapping its one-child policy because of worries about an ageing population and how much of a social net the country can afford without the traditional reliance on large families to care for the aged. "We want incrementally to have this [one-child policy] change," said Vice Minister of the National Population and Family Planning Commission Zhao Baige. Planet Ark reports that teams studying the issue would have to consider the strain of China's huge population on its scarce resources.

Okay, it doesn't take a lot of number crunching to recognize that no amount of young workers "supporting" the elderly will make up for droughts, floods, deforestation, dustbowls-for-croplands, climate change, sea-level rise, extinctions, and economic meltdown that will follow in the wake of more people on our little world. This goes for all nations toying with or employing pronatalist policies: US, France, Russia, Australia, Canada, Japan, and growing…

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

Missing Link Never Lost

| Thu Feb. 28, 2008 11:11 PM PST

493px-Horseevolution.png At least not since 1861, when the first Archaeopteryx fossil bridging birds and dinosaurs was discovered. Creationists have got it wrong (again), according to a new piece in New Scientist. Archaeopteryx rose from German limestones only 2 years after Darwin published The Origin of Species, wherein he predicted that so-called missing-links would be found. And they were. And they are, writes Donald Prothero:

In the 1870s the iconic sequence of fossil horses was documented. By the time of Darwin's death in 1882 there were numerous fossils and fossil sequences showing evolutionary change, especially among invertebrates. Evidence of evolution in the fossil record has vastly increased since then. Yet the idea still persists that the fossil record is too patchy to provide good evidence of evolution. One reason for this is the influence of creationism. Foremost among their tactics is to distort or ignore the evidence for evolution; a favourite lie is "there are no transitional fossils".

In fact transitions are everywhere: the emergence of vertebrates from echinoderms (sea urchins, starfish & kin); the "fishibian" sequence (pdf) whereby fish crawled ashore; the transition from synapsids to mammals; plus sequences showing how giraffes got their long necks, seals returned to the sea; and the hippolike transition that returned manatees and their kin back to the ocean… The list is growing, deepening, and, well, evolving.

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NYs Black Cabs Go Green

| Wed Feb. 27, 2008 11:52 PM PST

237M3847b.jpg Good news for New Yorkers. And Earthers. New York City set new fuel emissions standards for the city's 10,000 black taxis Wednesday. Town car owners must switch to hybrid tech within 5 years. The move, reports Reuters, is part of Mayor Bloomberg's grand plan to decrease the city's carbon emissions by 30 percent by 2030. Yellow cabs in New York are already under a 2012 deadline for going green. Black town cars serve mostly corporate clients and make 2 percent of the city's transport-related emissions. Hybrids will cut that in half.

Not to mention sweeten the urban air.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

Biodiesel Burps... Wrong Mix

| Wed Feb. 27, 2008 8:20 PM PST

Soybus.jpg What if the biodiesel you're buying doesn't have as much biodiesel as advertised? Or a whole lot more? Well, according to a new analysis of more than 20 distributors and small U.S. retailers, blends sold as 20% biodiesel contained as little as 10% or as much as 74% biodiesel. The study by Christopher Reddy at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and colleagues is published in Environmental Science & Technology.

The problems are manifold (pun, sadly, intended): from a shaken public confidence to tax credits given in excess of what sellers deserve. Plus, blends containing more than 20% biodiesel can damage hoses and gaskets in cars manufactured before 1993, and can also freeze in cold temperatures. This could plug fuel filters or freeze fuel solid in the tank. The blending problem is most apparent with smaller mom-and-pop retailers mixing it themselves. From ES&T:

The biodiesel industry is trying to rein in the problem, says Amber Pearson, a spokesperson for the National Biodiesel Board, by working with ASTM on standards that will include biodiesel blends. States will then have to adjust their own regulations to include blend verification.

Growing pains, let's hope.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

China Sacks Plastic Bags

| Tue Feb. 26, 2008 10:25 PM PST

Chinese_dragons.gif The dragon is changing its color. China launched a surprise crackdown on plastic bags in January. Now production of ultra-thin bags is outlawed and supermarkets and shops are forbidden from handing out free carrier bags starting June 1. Reuters reports via the Xinhua news agency that the country's largest plastic bag maker—Suiping Huaqiang Plastic Co, which employed 20,000 workers—has closed following a state-led environmental campaign discouraging plastics. Before the ban, China used 3 billion plastic bags a day and refined 37 million barrels of crude oil yearly for packaging.

Compare with America's 380 billion plastic bags a year. That's right: 1 billion-plus "disposable" bags a day. Of which only 1 percent get recycled. The rest go into landfill. Or to kill wildlife.

Go green dragon.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

The West Gets 500% Dustier

| Mon Feb. 25, 2008 7:41 PM PST

dustbowl.jpg The west wasn't always so dusty. It got a whole more so in the past 200 years, 500 percent more so—thanks to American expansion, complete with trains, ranches, and livestock. Sediment records from dust blown into alpine lakes in southwest Colorado's San Juan Mountains over millennia indicate the sharp rise in dust deposits beginning in the middle of the last century. "From about 1860 to 1900, the dust deposition rates shot up so high that we initially thought there was a mistake in our data," said geologist Jason Neff of the University of Colorado Boulder. "But the evidence clearly shows the western U.S. had its own Dust Bowl beginning in the 1800s when the railroads went in and cattle and sheep were introduced into the rangelands. There were an estimated 40 million head of livestock on the western rangeland during the turn of the century, causing a massive and systematic degradation of the ecosystems." The 1934 Taylor Grazing Act imposed restrictions on western grazing lands, and the deposits show a coinciding decrease in dust that continues to this day.

Another reason to bring back the bison.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.